New York Hostile Work Environment Cases and the Use of Racist Paraphernalia as Props in Incidents of Severe Harassment

People on social media often question something still being “a thing in [the current year].” The phrase is meant to convey frustration, disbelief, or contempt about some antiquated notion, viewpoint, or belief still occurring in our modern world. One would certainly hope that truly grotesque and blatantly offensive displays of racism in New York workplaces would no longer be “a thing,” but the news and court case filings tell a different — and more depressing — reality. Whether what you encountered was a noose, a banana, gorilla jokes, a KKK hood, or some other insignia of overt racial hostility, don’t wait to take the necessary legal action, and make sure you start with retaining a knowledgeable New York race discrimination lawyer.

In one of the most recent hostile work environment incidents, K.P., a Black man from Brooklyn, allegedly endured gorilla jokes, complete with props.

K.P. started working as a night-shift dispatcher for a distribution-systems provider headquartered upstate. There were also various isolated instances of epithets like “Uncle Tom,” “coon,” “jigaboo,” and the N-word, the last of which was used in connection with the holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, according to the complaint.

A useful thing to keep in mind, which the court pointed out in denying the employer’s motion for summary judgment, is that, for conduct to represent racial harassment under state and federal law, it must not only be severe or pervasive in nature, it must also be something that the target understands to be motivated by race.

For example, K.P.’s evidence of epithets was undermined by his stated misunderstanding that the word “jigaboo” represented an anti-gay slur, not a racial one. He also did not know what “coon” and “Uncle Tom” meant, and had to ask his father about them.

A Single Incident as ‘Severe’ Harassment

A different event yielded more positive results for the employee. According to the plaintiff, a driver for the employer, one day in May 2017, held a banana over K.P.’s head “while making monkey sounds.” Several coworkers allegedly witnessed this offensive scene.

That incident, although just a single event, was enough potentially to satisfy the “severe or pervasive” requirement. It included “highly offensive” words and gestures that included imitating an ape and equating apes with K.P., a Black man. The banana served as a prop to further hammer home the point of this offensive analogy. Given the use of the banana as a prop, the incredibly offensive nature of the content and meaning of the display, and the audience of numerous coworkers, the banana incident represented a possible instance of severe harassment.

The other slurs on other occasions, while not enough to meet the severe-or-pervasive standard by themselves, were sufficient to bolster K.P.’s argument surrounding the banana incident. The banana incident as a potential event of severe harassment was, according to the judge, “particularly true in light of the aforementioned isolated incidents of racism that the plaintiff experienced while employed at” the company.

Additionally, the judge’s ruling displays how workers can hold their employers liable for isolated incidents of severe harassment perpetrated by a coworker. One way your employer can be liable is if it did not provide you with a “reasonable avenue for” complaining about the harassment you endured. Another is if you had an adequate avenue for complaining, used it, and your employer “failed to take appropriate remedial action.”

One way an employer can be guilty of failing to respond properly is when the employer knows about an incident of harassment, but either does not punish the perpetrator or only issues a weak disciplinary penalty.

In K.P.’s case, the employer knew about the banana incident and two director-level employees recommended that the employer fire the perpetrator, but the company owner overruled them, concluding that the driver did not act maliciously but rather as a result of “merely being ignorant,” and issued a one-week suspension without pay.

A reasonable juror could take this outcome as a “slap on the wrist” and a failure to respond appropriately to remediate the hostile work environment, especially given that the perpetrator of the banana incident later engaged in a subsequent act of racially motivated inappropriate conduct (targeting a different coworker.)

Physical items that carry unmistakably racist overtones — like nooses and Klan hoods — are regrettably (and infuriatingly) still “a thing” in 2022. If that has happened to you — even once — be aware that that one incident may be enough to meet the standard for a hostile work environment. Get in touch with the skilled New York race discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates to get the powerful legal representation you need in your hostile work environment case. We understand just how incredibly harmful these events are and we’re eager to get started zealously advocating for you. To find out more, contact us online or at (866) 229-9441 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

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